Saturday, January 31, 2009

My dad recently published this moving letter to the editor in the North County Times; he had titled it "The Awful Rope", but they retitled it "Images of a segregated US still resonate":
As I watched Barack Obama's inaugural address, I thought of my experience in World War 2. I'm a white man who was a lieutenant in the Quartermaster Corps assigned to a service company consisting of 4 white officers and 228 black enlisted men.

After training these men at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, we went overseas in a Liberty ship, disembarking at Liverpool, England. For our first meal in Liverpool, we entered a room and were confronted by a large rope stretched down the middle of the room with these directions: "whites on this side, blacks on the other side". That rope symbolized the segregation policy of the U.S. Armed Forces. The image of that rope remains deeply etched in my memory.

During World War 2, black soldiers were treated like second class citizens. Today, we salute Barack Obama, our country's first African- American Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces. I hope that some of the men with whom I served and were victimized by what that awful rope represented are still alive to witness this great historic time.

Buzz Brandeis
I'm so proud of my dad for writing this letter, so proud of him for knowing how wrong segregation was when he was in the thick of it. I was shocked as I was researching The Book of Dead Birds to learn that this sort of segregation was still happening in the US military well into the 1970s. Thank goodness our culture is continuing to evolve--I'm thankful my dad can remind me just how far we've come within his lifetime.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Michael and I went to the Go Green Expo today at the LA Convention Center. We enjoyed wandering around the booths, sampling organic cookies and marveling at the softness of bamboo fabric and checking out solar panels, but the highlight of the expo was the screening of short films from the Elevate Film Festival and the panel discussion that followed.

Elevate seeks to use film as a medium for personal and social transformation, and I was so inspired to see the films themselves--moving and beautiful and funny stories (both documentary and dramatic)--and to hear the filmmakers speak about their process and intentions. Many of them spoke about Obama, and how he reminds people that we can't just sit around and wait for him to fix everything--we need to be active and involved in bringing that change forth, ourselves. As they talked about their desire to create community and inspire change through their work, I felt a deep resonance. They were speaking my language, even though we use different art forms to express it. It's so exciting to me to know that artists all over the country--and the rest of the world!--are finding ways to make the world a better place through their creativity and generosity.

Among the people on the panel were Jenny and Otis Funkmeyer. I don't think I can even begin to describe them--you are just going to have to experience them yourselves. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I've been wanting to try miracle fruit for years. I first learned about it when researching Fruitflesh--it is a berry, that, when consumed, makes sour and bitter foods taste sweet. Since then, the subject has come up many times; Miracle Fruit is the title of one of my very favorite books of poetry, and the New York Times did a cool article on flavor-tripping miracle fruit parties last year, but it wasn't until my daughter noticed that miracle fruit tablets were available on that I took the plunge and ordered some. Last week, I did some flavor tripping, first with Hannah and Michael, then with Michael and our friends Kate and Christian. It's really quite amazing--you let the tablet dissolve on your tongue, and before too long, lemons taste like lemonade, grapefruit tastes as if it's been sugared, pickles taste more like cucumbers and wine tastes almost cloyingly sweet. The most dramatic change was in the marinated mushrooms--garlicky and vinegary before the miracle fruit tablets, they tasted as if they had been dipped in honey afterwards. It's quite wild--the texture was the same, but the flavor (especially the aftertaste) was completely transformed. I recommend the experience highly--it's great fun to taste the world in a brand new way.

The box of the tablets touts "Life Can Be Sweeter!" Even without the miracle fruit, doesn't life taste sweeter today with Obama in office?!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun."

--Elizabeth Alexander, from her Inaugural poem, "Praise Song for the Day"

As I sat, rapt, during Obama's stirring Inaugural address, I couldn't help but notice the way the light hit the American flag pin on his lapel. Every once in a while, the sun would shoot off the metal in radiant beams, like something from a comic book or maybe religious iconography. Today's sharp sparkle, embodied. The promise of a shimmering new beginning. The restoration of glimmer to our shared stars and stripes.
"On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light."

Monday, January 19, 2009

We will not build a peaceful world by following a negative path. It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war but the positive affirmation of peace. We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody, that is far superior to the dischords of war. Somehow, we must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from the negative nuclear arms race, which no one can win, to a positive contest to harness humanity's creative genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality for all the nations of the world. In short, we must shift the arms race into a peace race. If we have a will- and determination- to mount such a peace offensive, we will unlock hitherto tightly sealed doors of hope and transform our imminent cosmic elegy into a psalm of creative fulfillment.
--Martin Luther King, Jr.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Earlier this week, when I saw news that Random House announced more job cuts, I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Today, I learned that my editor's job was among the ones eliminated.

Anika Streitfeld was the editor of my dreams. We met at Book Expo America several years ago; she was working for MacAdam/Cage at the time (where she edited, among other amazing books, two of my favorite novels: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffinegger and Sleep Toward Heaven by Amanda Eyre Ward). I had written a blurb for one of her books, and introduced myself when I saw her at the MacAdam/Cage booth. We hit it off and kept in touch; both of us spoke about how much we would like to work together some day. When I finished a draft of Self Storage, I noticed in Publishers Lunch that Anika was moving to Ballantine; I asked my agent if she could send Self Storage there. Anika ended up acquiring my novel as her first at her new publishing house (Ballantine is under the Random House umbrella). It was such a joy to work with her--she gave me thorough, thoughtful, deeply intelligent notes that helped the book grow, and helped me grow as a writer. I loved how she understood my vision for the book; our work together felt like a true collaboration.

I had been on pins and needles waiting to hear her response to my latest novel, Pears, after I turned in a draft last September. I know I shared some of my angst on the blog--I may have mentioned how I had been worried that she hated the book and just wasn't sure how to tell me yet (ah, the neuroses of a writer!) It turns out she was just extra busy with deadlines, plus dealing with the vagaries of early pregnancy. When she did call with her feedback, I was in the middle of a workshop during the December Antioch MFA residency and couldn't answer the phone. During a break, I told my students that the call had been from my editor, who I had been waiting to hear from for a few months. They encouraged me to listen to the voice mail in front of them, which I did--my heart pounding, not knowing what to expect. Whether it was good news or bad, I figured, it would be helpful to share it with the students--a way to give them a window in life as a published author. Happily, the news was good--Anika called the book "wonderful" on the message and said she looked forward to sharing her ideas for revision. It was so cool to share the moment with my students, who were very excited and supportive.

Anika and I didn't actually have a chance to speak until after the holidays, since our schedules were both so bonkers. Over the last couple of weeks, though, we finally started discussing revision strategies. As always, her notes were incredibly helpful, and while I felt a bit daunted by the amount of work ahead of me, I was also inspired and definitely excited by the opportunity to work with her to get the book where we both wanted it to be. I am sad now that I won't get to share that process with her, but I am grateful for her suggestions, grateful that the novel will be imprinted by her touch even though from this point on, I'll be working with another editor (who I will connect with soon.)

Anika assured me that she'll be okay--the layoff is actually good timing for her, since she'll be able to spend some real time with her two year old before the new baby arrives. I am eager to keep in touch with her, to share book recommendations and writerly inspirations and stories about our lives.

Thank you, Anika, for all that you have given me. I am a lucky, lucky writer indeed to have had the chance to work with you.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Some events on the horizon...

--I will be on a fiction panel at the Celebration of Inland Authors at the Feldheym Library in San Bernardino at 1pm on Saturday, January 24th (I believe I'll also be reading that day, but am not sure when. I'll update when I find out.)

--I am going to introduce literary agent Betsy Amster at UCR Writers Week on Wednesday, February 4th at 11am. You can check out the full Writers Week schedule here

--I (and I'm super excited about this) will be part of the Rhapsodomancy Reading Series on Sunday, February 8th at 7pm at the Good Luck Bar in LA, a groovy little venue that looks like something out of a 1960s-era Peter Seller's movie. I'll be reading with Paul Lisicky, Carine Topal, and Lynn Thompson. This series is curated by the fabulous Wendy Ortiz.

--If you are a Johnston Center/College alum or supporter and will be at the Johnston Renewal over President's Day weekend at the University of Redlands, I will be co-teaching a class on Renewal through Fiction: Becoming 'The Other' with novelist Jo-Ann Mapson Saturday, February 14th at 1pm. It will be so wonderful to see old friends and get a dose of that great Johnston energy!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

I drove down to Oceanside today to have dinner with my parents and go to my mom's latest art opening (yay mom!) At some point along that route, I always lose the signal for NPR--a frustrating experience, since it usually seems to happen right in the middle of This American Life or Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me--but today I remembered I had a book on CD in the stereo (thanks to a wonderful student/friend who gave me a huge stack of them): From Fear to Fearlessness by Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun. The audio book explores how using the Buddhist teachings and practice of lovingkindness can open our hearts and help us face the painful parts of our lives, parts of our lives that make us contract with fear.

Pema Chodron's voice washed over me as I drove past casino billboards and mountain-goat-like orange groves planted on the sides of terraced hills. I hadn't realized how much I needed to hear her words. Life has been good, more than good, but lately I've found myself grappling with a lot of sadness in the wake of my divorce being finalized. Mainly sadness about feeling estranged from the larger circle that had encompassed my marriage, the circle that tightened around Matt after I left (and that I know is still open to me, but in a changed and complicated way.) As Pema Chodron led her audience through the practice of maitri, extending lovingkindness (or, as she sometimes sweetly called it, "friendliness") first to oneself, then to those one is grateful for, then to those one is neutral to, then to those one has issues with, then to all beings, I felt myself melt. I hadn't realized that I had been feeling sorry for myself, and I could feel myself let that go as I wished happiness to all the people in that circle that has sustained me and is now sustaining Matt. And of course I wished happiness to Matt in the process, too. I hadn't been wishing anyone ill before, but to actively wish happiness felt incredibly healing.

Just as Pema Chodron said something about opening the heart, I looked up and saw a heart forming in the sky; the plane creating it was too far away to see--it looked as if the white heart was writing itself onto the blue. I felt my breath catch in my chest, then deepen, at its beauty, its perfect timing. As I continued to drive, I watched the heart change, dissipate, eventually dissolve--it, along with Pema Chodron, reminded me that change is the only constant in life, that we need to continually let go of how we think things should be in order to embrace the shifting reality of what truly is. Our own human hearts beat for such a short time before they dissolve into nothingness--it makes no sense to waste time contracting them in fear or resentment or bitterness. Open them, open them, even when (especially when) it hurts.

May all beings enjoy happiness.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Last year, my amazing friend, Masha Hamilton traveled to Afghanistan and wrote a blistering piece for on the epidemic of kidnapping there. She recently heard from a brave young Afghan woman, Meena Yousufzai, who went to Kandahar to talk to some of the schoolgirls who had been burned by acid by men who oppose education for girls and woman. Masha asked if I could get Meena's voice out--it desperately needs to be heard.
Dear Ms. Masha:

I found Kandahar to be very quiet and isolated. According to people many middle class
families have left the province to live in Kabul or emigrate back to Pakistan and Iran.

A lot of the people I met were mainly complaining about unemployment and poverty. There were only a few restaurants and hotels in the whole city. According to the natives the only well paid jobs are with the foreign NGOs and many think it is a big risk to take.

I was staying in a dormitory along with eight other absolutely adorable girls from Uruzgan and Helmand who were studying to be midwives. Surprisingly all of these girls were Persian speaking Shia citizens of their provinces where they make a very tiny minority. While asking them about the conditions in their home provinces they told me that in Uruzgan Persian speaking people have their won communities, where government has more power and Taliban are not very powerful. The also told me that Pashtuns do not let their daughters to go to school or work that is the reason why majority of the doctors, nurses and teaches are Persian speaking Shias although, in these provinces Pashtuns make the majority. According to the girls they do not even wear a burqa in Helmand and Uruzgan while they are inside their own communities. Nafisa from Helmand told me that her mother runs a special class in her house for the girls who have dropped out of school. The home school is supported by the government so her mother is paid about three and a half thousand Afghani (almost 60 USD) a month. This is a very good income in Helmand. She told me that because the government sometime helps the course students with some wheat and cooking oil, even some very conservative families let their daughters and wives to attend the class. (From this you can see how severe the poverty really is).

I was shocked when Sohila and I were stopped to enter a restaurant because we did not have a male relative with us (absolutely like Taliban rules).on the streets you can only see a few women after 12:00 at noon. Almost every woman wears a burqa and sacks to cover their feet. People over all but women especially looked so much scared of the Taliban. They were almost paranoid about it. They thought that Taliban follow each and every of them and can hurt them and their families anytime.

Unlike Kabul I did not see many signs of the central government (like our national flag, Posters of the President and etc..). The only photos even in the government owned vehicles I noticed were of the late King, Zaher Shah, and Kandahar’s former governor Gul Agha Sherzoi, who seemed to be very popular. Surprisingly, a majority of the police in Kandahar were Persian speaking (looked to me more from Parwan and Panjshair) with little familiarity to Pashto language and Pashtun culture. While asking why that would be from a Taxi driver and a friend their reply was that the government does not trust Kandaharis because they can be sympathetic to Taliban.

I met eleven out of the thirteen girls (the media was wrong about fifteen or sixteen) from the acid attack and their families. All of them had great hatred for Taliban but meanwhile had no faith in their own central government. Asking some Shias about their religious freedom in Kandahar, they were very happy that they were being somewhat treated equally by the central government.

Just a very interesting story, one of the men named Naim who had sprayed acid on the girls was not caught by the police but his own mother called the police after watching the news and told them about her suspicions about his son’s involvement in the attack. Naim was tortured and killed in Police custody.

Wearing a burqa was a very interesting experience. It was the first time I ever wore a burqa for that long. Just after getting out of the airport , my friend Sohila, who was already wearing a burqa, asked me to wear mine. I did wear mine but I pulled up the front part meaning my face was not covered. The plan was for Mr. Ted to go with a car that our contact from Human Rights commission sent. And for us was to go in a taxi, whose drivers was a family friend to Sohila. We said good bye but suddenly my instincts told me not to trust the driver of the car. Wearing my burqa but not covering my face I ran to stop the car and go in the same car with Mr. Ted. Behind me Sohila was getting mad and shouting “You are not supposed to be running with a burqa on and without covering your face”. But I did.

Of course wearing a burqa was uncomfortable but it was easy to deal with. The hardest part for me was that I had to wear a burqa because of fear of the Taliban and men’s injustice in our societies. I was wearing a burqa not because I wanted to but because I had to. Finally I decided that I would not cover my face. And I would deal with whatever might happen. It was not really like Taliban will beat you or something they do not have that much power. But people would stare at you and gave you bad looks. Of course my friend Sohila did not let me do it all the time but whenever she was not there I did it. Once after dropping Sohila home. I got myself a Pepsi and asked the driver to go through Bazar. I uncovered my burqa, relaxed and drunk my Pepsi. Nothing really happened but made me feel much better. During the nights I slept in a room with four other girls. Till late we all would be chatting. These girls were of ages 16 to 18 and some married and two already mothers. In the first night they were shy and quite but the other nights we made really good friends. I asked them about different things in their provinces especially women rights. I was so mad when almost all of them thought it is fine for men to beat their wives and sisters. And the best thing for a Muslims woman is to keep quiet and have patience. I talked a lot to them about women in Islam. They looked so thirsty for information. I told them that If it is fine for Prophet (PBUH) to divorce his wife why not for us, who are nothing but ordinary followers of him. If in the Quran it says that Nekah is Sunnah (Actions Prophet (PBUH) has done and Divorce is Farz (Muslim’s duty if husband and wife are not happy). Then who are we to do the opposite. While talking to them I felt that I would for sure work for women rights all through Afghanistan but especially in Pashtun areas. These girls told me that they are still very lucky to be born as Persian speaking. What would they do if they were Pashtun women? They girls absolutely loved the freedom we have in Kabul. It was just great for them. They had a feeling that they can not do anything. others need to change things for them. For example Nafisa from Helmad told me that “I can not wait for Americans to take out every woman’s burqa in Helmand and Kandahar”. I told her it is only us, Afghan women, who can and who will do this. It taught me something. I wear my Islamic hejab and if Allah willing I will always but I hope every Afghan women would be able to follow their religion based on their own version and personal believes, They will do it because they want to not because they have to.

Over all I found Kandaharis to be one of the biggest victims of Taliban. They are very much in need of help. They are poor, illiterate and very easy targets for Taliban to use.

Meena Yousufzai YES ‘08
January 4th , 2009
I am grateful to have this sobering window into the current Afghan female experience, which we don't hear about often enough in the media. If you feel moved to help, the Afghan Women's Mission is a wonderful organization providing health, education and other needed programs. And if you are inspired by Masha's work (which always features a beautiful blending of art and social responsibility), please consider taking one of her writing workshops; she will help you be brave in your own creative work.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Happy 2009! I hope everyone had a peaceful, delicious holiday season.

Since my blogging chops are rusty right now, I think I'm just going to post my Free Will Astrology horoscope (Rob Brezny is eerily accurate almost every week):
Aries (March 21-April 19)
It's a great privilege to live in a free country. You're fortunate if you have the opportunity to pursue your dreams without having to ward off government interference or corporate brainwashing or religious fanaticism. But that's only partly useful if you have not yet won the most important struggle for liberation, which is the freedom from your own unconscious habits and conditioned responses. Becoming an independent agent who's not an unwitting slave to his or her past is one of the most heroic feats a human being can accomplish. And you, Aries, will have more mojo to do that in 2009 than you've had in a long time.
Wishing all of you the mojo to access new levels of creative freedom this year! And wishing for the world the hope and change that we have been promised--let's do whatever we can to bring it into being.